ANGELOPOULOS, THEO – OBITUARY
Geoff Gardner looks back on the filmmaker’s life.
No film-maker ever devised titles as poetic as Theo Angelopoulos, a genuine master of the cinema. Landscape in the Mist, The Suspended Step of the Stork (who knows if it is as alliterative in Greek as it is in English?), The Weeping Meadow, Ulysses’ Gaze, Eternity and a Day. Perhaps only the films of Nicholas Ray bear comparison for the instant mood many of the titles create.
"the exemplar of European art cinema"
Angelopoulos was the exemplar of European art cinema, a director whose work when shown in public almost everywhere was confined to festivals and other coterie audiences. Commercial distributors did not rush him off his feet even for the films which won the prizes at Venice (Alexander the Great, Golden Lion, 1980) and Cannes (Eternity and a Day, Palme D’Or, 1998). He was however something of a businessman and with his producer brother he had a capacity to extract some very expensive screening fees from festivals begging for his work. (Way back in 1981 the family clipped the Melbourne Film Festival a swingeing $US1,000 for a single screening of Alexander the Great and I’m pretty sure they got the same amount out of the Sydney Film Festival.)
Angelopoulos’s first two features Reconstruction (1970) and Days of 36 (1972) were well received and at the time were seen to presage a revival of the moribund Greek cinema. Until their appearance, only Michael Cacoyannis had made any impact on world film culture over several decades since World War 2. These two films, only screened in Australia much later during the Stratton years at SBS when the director’s entire catalogue was broadcast, were invocations of Greek politics and history told in an oblique fashion and made while a junta of Colonels was running the country. They foreshadowed something special.
"that special group of directors"
However it was The Travelling Players (1975) which launched Angelopoulos into that special group of directors, a mere couple of handfuls over the last half century, whose work was uniformly regarded as the essence of the art, the justification for all that dross otherwise produced by the far less talented. TA developed a method of exposition and film-making practice from which he hardly deviated for several decades – long takes, a tracking camera, actors placed in the middle and long distance as Greek and European history was pondered and revealed
The Travelling Players was premiered at Cannes in Pierre-Henri Deleau’s Directors’ Fortnight screenings and was an instant revelation. Its long single takes, slowly moving camera and placement of the actors in almost dream-like Grecian landscapes created a sensation and the film went round the world acquiring prize after prize (BFI Best Film of the Year, Best Film of the Year from authorities in Brussels, Japan and Berlin, voted Best film of the Decade by the Italian Film Critics Association and many more.
The Travelling Players was the first of Angelopoulos’s films to screen here and left more than a few bewildered at what it was trying to say and how it was trying to say it. I cant confess to instantly getting aboard the Angelopoulos bandwagon and I am grateful to Gary Andrews and his copious records for letting me know that Colin Bennett of The Age, our leading newspaper critic of the day, was of a somewhat similar view. Bennett’s festival review was more than a bit guarded but it concluded: The takes are often as long as anything by the Hungarian Miklos Jansco, who is obviously the main influence over him. And although Jansco is to me one of the masters of cinema, I'm still not generally sold on this denial of montage, a concept one can trace back to the critic Andre Bazin and his school. However, the metaphorical device of a band of players travelling through history is certainly original, and Angelopoulos finally does hypnotise us and communicates an overall grasp of the tragedy of modern Greece.”
"an illustrious group, a sort of A-Team of international names..."
From that time in the mid-70s Angelopoulos joined an illustrious group, a sort of A-Team of international names whose premiere screenings were fought over by the European A festivals. When you watched a film by these directors you were asked to enter the almost private world of ultimate cinephilia, the films made that justified the cinema’s continuing fascination. For a long stretch of time Angelopoulos stood with Bresson and Tati, Welles, Godard, Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Miklos Jancso, Marguerite Duras, Sergei Paradjanov, Bela Tarr, Federico Fellini (notwithstanding his ‘popularity’). You get my drift.
The major Australian festivals were always keen to screen his films and during Sandra Sdraulig’s time at MIFF that festival presented a major retrospective of his work.
He wasn’t however a fast worker. All told in a career spaning forty plus years he made just 13 features. His last completed film The Dust in Time, which premiered at Berlin in 2009, was an international co-production mess and most of the same festivals that lapped up his earlier work couldn’t bring themselves to show it. In Australia it had its belated first screenings at a low key and unreported upon Greek Film Week in Sydney and Melbourne at the end of 2010.
According to one news report Angelopoulos died on Tuesday 24 January several hours after being involved in an accident while shooting his latest film in Athens. The respected filmmaker had been with his crew in the area of Drapetsona, near Piraeus when he was hit by a motorcycle on Tuesday evening.
The Dust in Time was the second part of a trilogy begun with The Weeping Meadow in 2004 and I assume the film he was making will or would have been the completion of that project.
Published February 9, 2012
Email this article
(17/4/1935 - 24/1/2012)